Welcome to the March 29, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Cyberattacks Seem Meant to Destroy, Not Just Disrupt
New York Times (03/28/13) Nicole Perlroth; David E. Sanger
The criminals behind recent cyberattacks on U.S. financial companies seem intent on destroying their targets, instead of simply disrupting business operations. "The attacks have changed from espionage to destruction," says the SANS Institute's Alan Paller. "Nations are actively testing how far they can go before we will respond." One group behind many of the attacks over the last six months calls itself the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters. The group says it is retaliating for an anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube last fall. However, U.S. intelligence officials and industry investigators say they believe the group is a cover for the Iranian government. North Korea and Iran are the two countries most worrisome to security experts. "These countries are pursuing cyberweapons the same way they are pursuing nuclear weapons," warns the Center for Strategic and International Studies' James A. Lewis. The Obama administration has publicly urged companies to be more transparent about cyberattacks, but security experts and lawyers often give the opposite advice. However, the increasing brazenness of cyberattacks is beginning to change private-sector opinion. "Companies are much more concerned about this and much more willing to see a government role," Lewis says.
Professor Enlists Android Phones in Search for Black Holes
Wired News (03/27/13) Daniela Hernandez
University of California, Berkeley professor David Anderson has been fascinated by the use of pooled computing power to solve problems since 1995, when one of his graduate students suggested aggregating processing power from personal computers worldwide to search for extraterrestrial life. This led to the SETI@home project, which uses the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) platform to enable a network of volunteers to donate surplus computing power. Although interest in this shadow computer network has dwindled, Anderson intends to reignite interest by moving the network onto Android devices. Anderson and his colleagues have been working on BOINC software that runs on both smartphones and tablets, because these devices now have central processing units (CPUs) and graphics processors capable of feeding Berkeley’s massively distributed system. In addition, the researchers have improved the graphical user interface and added code that will shut down when a device's temperature gets too high. The software runs while devices are charging and connected to Wi-Fi, and will not strain batteries or increase cellphone bills. Social tools available for mobile platforms, such as sharing apps and notification, may boost BOINC distribution by reminding people that extra CPU cycles can be used to help scientists accomplish feats such as discovering black holes.
'We Are the World'
Science (03/27/13) Jim Austin
In an interview, University of Washington professor Ed Lazowska cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections that 66 percent of all available jobs in all fields of science and engineering during the current decade will be in computer science. Lazowska says that, although the field will always be subject to up and down cycles, "the role of computer science is ever-expanding." He estimates that computer science is producing 50 percent more Ph.D.s than 10 years ago, but he anticipates a decline in graduate enrollment, given the enormous employment opportunities available. "Ph.D. production in computer science is far lower than in fields with far fewer employment opportunities," Lazowska observes. "And Ph.D.s in computer science have a broad range of employment opportunities that take full advantage of their training." A core trend Lazowska sees is the penetration of all other fields, such as medicine, law, business, and biotech, by computer scientists. He also notes a looming demand for data scientists, who he expects to be trained in computer science departments in scalable machine learning, data visualization, and related areas. Lazowska says cybersecurity is another huge opportunity for computer scientists. He calls hardening the U.S.'s critical infrastructure "the full-employment act for well-educated cybersecurity professionals."
Amazon’s Online Workforce Not So Anonymous After All
University of Texas at Austin (03/27/13)
University of Texas at Austin researchers recently conducted a study of Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk (AMT) program, which is supposed to be anonymous, and found a security vulnerability that makes it possible to uncover many workers' personally identifying information. The AMT program allows a "requester" to sign in and enter a job post. Any of AMT's 500,000 workers can sign on and complete the task. The requester then assesses the work and, if it meets specifications, pays the worker without either knowing the identity of the other. AMT requesters and workers are identified to one another only by a 14-character sequence of letters and numbers. However, the researchers found that Amazon links the same identifiers to all Amazon activities in which users engage. Therefore, searching the Web for worker IDs often reveals allegedly private information about the workers such as products they have rated, product reviews they have written, their Amazon wish lists, and often the workers' actual names and pictures. "While this finding does not preclude future use of AMT for such research, both researchers and participants need to recognize and acknowledge the potential lack of participant anonymity in future studies, as well as those already under way," says University of Texas at Austin professor Matt Lease.
Knowing the Unknown
MIT News (03/27/13) Helen Knight
Robots must be more aware of their own limitations in order to effectively carry out complex actions in dynamic environments such as homes and offices, according to researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Robots that have succeeded thus far have been primarily in highly controlled environments such as manufacturing plants, or used for single tasks such as vacuuming a room. “I would like to make a robot that could go into your kitchen for the first time, having been in other kitchens before but not yours, and put the groceries away,” says CSAIL's Leslie Pack Kaelbling. To accomplish this, Kaelbling and CSAIL colleague Tomas Lozano-Perez developed a system that constantly determines a robot’s uncertainty about a task. Using the state estimation component module, the system determines the probability of a robot's correct estimation of any given object. If the robot's certainty is inadequate, the robot will gather more information before acting. In addition, the system helps robots develop plans in stages. In many situations, especially new environments, a robot's knowledge is not sufficient to make detailed plans in advance, so the system plans the first stage and begins executing this before devising the remainder of the strategy.
Does Computer Code Need a New, Universal Language?
New Scientist (03/25/13) Douglas Heaven
Computer scientist Ramsey Nasser created a coding language in Arabic to reduce dependence on English in modern programming and to create an aesthetically-pleasing language. However, the English language is entrenched in tremendous volumes of code and data. "The truth is, we can't maintain a full programming experience in every natural language--you would have to translate all existing software and all new software as it came out," Nasser says. "It's not sustainable. I don't know what the solution is, but I see this project as the beginning of my inquiry into what it might be." People in the Middle East were initially excited about the Arabic programming language, although the reaction was dampened somewhat when Nasser explained that an all-Arabic coding experience is impossible. Reaction in the West has ranged from enthusiasm to inquiries about technical implications, Nasser says. "I had always perceived code as an abstract tool for thought, but this project has reminded me that it comes with significant cultural baggage," he says. "To teach the world how to code, do we first have to teach the world to speak English?"
Online Courses Open Doors for Teenagers
Financial Times (03/26/13) Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson
Precocious teenagers around the world are among the students taking massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are designed for older students. Teenagers account for about 5 percent of the 800,000 students of edX, the venture founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Amol Bhave, a 17-year-old from India who scored very high on edX's circuits and electronics course, has been accepted to MIT. An effort to create a follow-up course with two other students caught the attention of MIT faculty members. Bhave says he felt the quality of education online was better than what his school provided, and realized maybe he belonged at MIT after all. "It opened doors to me for getting into colleges such as MIT, which I could never even have dreamt of getting into from my town," Bhave says. College-age students represent about 45 percent of MOOC students, and the remainder are older "continuing learners," says edX's Anant Agarwal. He notes the nonprofit hopes to educate 1 billion people worldwide within 10 years. Agarwal says less than a third of edX students currently come from the United States, and he expects it will have about 1 million students by its first anniversary in May.
Want Faster Fiber? Get Rid of the Glass
Register (UK) (03/27/13) Richard Chirgwin
Researchers at the University of Southampton say they have developed a way to propagate optics near the speed of light. The team has demonstrated air-filled fiber--propagating light through air and using fiber to contain it. In a conventional fiber, the glass acts as a waveguide, but the Southampton researchers' approach uses air waveguides for optical signals. The researchers claim the approach solves the problems of loss and coupling of the air solution. A boost in the propagation speed to 99.7 percent from 70 percent of light-speed would reduce the best-case trip from Australia to the United States from about 43 milliseconds to about 30 milliseconds, ignoring router hops and regeneration. The lower latency would be a boon for high-speed financial trading and for gamers. Air-filled fiber also would be beneficial to inside devices, such as for moving data between elements in supercomputers.
NSF-Funded Superhero Supercomputer Helps Battle Autism
National Science Foundation (03/26/13) Bobbie Mixon
San Diego Supercomputer Center researchers have used the Gordon supercomputer to develop a way to describe a time-dependent gene-expression process in the brain that can be used to guide the development of treatments for mental disorders such as autism-spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. The researchers used Gordon to identify the hierarchical tree of coherent gene groups and transcription-factor networks that determine the patterns of genes expressed during brain development. The researchers found some master transcription factors at the top of the hierarchy that regulated the expression of a significant number of gene groups. The findings could be used for the selection of transcription factors that can be targeted in the treatment of specific mental disorders, according to the researchers. "[Gordon] was designed to handle scientific problems involving the manipulation of very large data," says the U.S. National Science Foundation's Barry Schneider. "It is differentiated from most other resources we support in having a large solid-state memory, 4 GB per core, and the capability of simulating a very large shared memory system with software."
Shrinking Blob Speeds Traveling Salesman on His Way
Phys.Org (03/26/13) Marcia Malory
University of the West of England computer scientists Jeff Jones and Andrew Adamatzky have discovered that a virtual shrinking blob might help find a solution to the renowned traveling salesman quandary. The problem asks for the shortest route that a traveling salesman could take to reach specified cities in a tour, stopping only once at each city before returning to the starting point. Numerous algorithms have been developed to determine solutions to the problem, but no ideal algorithm has been written. Jones and Adamatzky created an algorithm based on the concept of the slime mold, a single-celled organism that stretches its body toward nutrients to engulf them. Their approach places a virtual blob comprised of individual particles inside a lattice with virtual cities. A chemoattractant is projected near the cities, and particles are programmed to move toward the area with the highest chemoattractant concentration. The particles leave a trace of chemoattractant that other particles follow, causing the entire blob to shrink to the smallest possible surface area while still touching all cities. In various tests based on 20 cities, the blob's final circumference created a route map providing a reasonable solution to the traveling salesman problem.
Robot Butler Can Open Doors, Talk, and Separate Oreos
The Tartan (03/25/13) Brooke Kuei
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's (CMU) Personal Robotics Lab have developed the Home Exploring Robot Butler (HERB). "The focus is on complicated manipulation tasks with a lot of uncertainty and a lot of clutter," says lab director Siddhartha Srinivasa, a professor in CMU's Robotics Institute. "We’re trying to get robots like HERB to move from the factory floor to homes so they can perform useful tasks that a caregiver would perform." HERB was originally developed after Nabisco approached the institute about developing an Oreo-separating robot for an advertising campaign. The researchers had to adapt and improve several algorithms in order to get HERB to have the dexterity to separate an Oreo cookie from the creme. However, these same tools could be useful in completing other tasks in the future. "HERB can get a meal out of the fridge, microwave food, clean up after a mess, and separate an Oreo," Srinivasa says. "The underlying algorithms are the same across all these tasks and are even generalizable across robots."
Notre Dame Researchers Scoring a Win-Win With Novel Set of Concussion Diagnostic Tools
Notre Dame News (03/25/13) William G. Gilroy
Notre Dame University researchers have developed a tablet-based testing system that captures the voice of an individual and analyzes their speech for signs of a potential concussion in real time. Since almost 90 percent of concussions go unrecognized, the technology offers great potential to reduce the impact of concussive and subconcussive hits to the head, says Notre Dame professor Christian Poellabauer. The program works by having an individual speak into the tablet before and after an event. The two samples are compared for traumatic brain injury indicators, such as distorted vowels, hyper nasality, and imprecise consonants. During testing, the program confirmed nine concussions out of 125 participants in the Notre Dame Bengal Bouts, an annual student boxing tournament. The system's benefits over traditional testing include portability, high accuracy, low cost, and a low probability of manipulation. “This project is a great example of how mobile computing and sensing technologies can transform health care,” Poellabauer says.
Research Uses Muscle Activity to Move Virtual Objects
University of Wisconsin-Madison (03/21/13) Marianne English
University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) researchers have developed a method to move virtual objects in an immersive virtual reality environment through the use of muscle activity. The research could have applications for people recovering from injuries or people living with specific disabilities, in addition to making virtual reality more interactive and realistic. "We’re trying to add the dimension of movement and touch to allow people to exert forces against things that are created in front of them with a projector and virtual reality goggles," says UWM professor Robert Radwin. The researchers developed the software and process for a pilot study in which participants move virtual objects in the CAVE, a fully immersive six-sided room that projects 3D environments on its walls. As part of the study, outside the CAVE, participants’ arms were connected to an electromyography (EMG) device that captures the electrical signals produced by muscles during physical activity. They then lifted dumbbells while the EMG device recorded their muscle activity to a nearby computer. The participants then performed the same activity inside the CAVE, however instead of lifting a real dumbbell, they lifted a virtual dumbbell instead. The results show that people can adapt their lifting behavior to a virtual reality environment using the same muscle groups used to lift real objects.
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